Just last month, Fluid athlete Alex King set the FKT on Mt. Rainier, clocking in a round-trip time of just 4:14:13. He wrote a fantastic trip report which we’re posting at the bottom of this interview, along with his social media links where you can follow along with his future adventures!
Now, on to the interview!
Hi Alex! First of all, we’re so stoked you agreed to do this interview. Your photos and trip report were outstanding. Looking forward to getting to know the ins and outs of this rad trip. Ok let’s get started.
You don’t just jump into setting fastest known times on all of the Cascade volcanoes. When did you start running, and how long did it take for it to become “your thing?”
I've been active all my life, growing up playing sports and getting into general outdoor shenanigans. In high school, I did track and field and I ran my first marathon when I was in 10th grade, but I wouldn't say I really 'found' running until college. I started running in school to explore new places around San Luis Obispo, once I had sufficiently explored the places closer to town I just kept having to go further and further to find new places. Eventually, it kind of just got out of hand. I think this is a pretty familiar story for many ultrarunners and endurance athletes in general.
You mention on your Instagram that this FKT was a “multi-year dream.” When did you start thinking about doing this, and how did it come to materialize into reality?
I got into FKTs in 2018 when I saw there was a record for Mt. Adams, the peak I grew up staring at and the mountain I currently live at the base of. A guy named Sean O'Rourke had the record at the time and I made it my mission to ‘take back the home mountain’. It took me a few tries to gain some fitness, dial in the gear, and learn what the ideal conditions for speed would be, but I eventually was able to snag the record. During that process of learning how to move fast in the mountains, I began looking into other peaks that inspired me and what the Fastest Known Times were on them. This is when I saw Uli Steidl's absolutely insane record on Mt. Rainier with a car-to-car time of 4:24:30, having taken down a record that stood for 8 years before that (on-foot record, it’s been done quicker on skis)! It became a dream, but at that point it was truly just that, a seemingly unattainable dream. It wasn't until I started knocking down some other records on Cascade Volcanoes including Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and Glacier Peak last year that I started to very slowly and very timidly get the inkling that the Mt. Rainier record may actually be within my wheelhouse. This small yet powerful inkling continually motivated me and fueled a big training block leading up to the effort.
In your trip report, you listed the many setbacks you had on your attempt. What do you consider your biggest setback on the trip, and how did you stay focused on your goal despite it?
Overall, I would say the effort up Mt. Rainier actually went incredibly smooth, all things considered. As I mentioned in my trip report, I would say the biggest setback was the sub-par snow conditions at the beginning of the route and the fact that the trail from Paradise to the Muir Snowfield was still completely snow-covered. Starting off in poor snow conditions was really hard mentally. I just had to keep pushing with hopes that the conditions would soon turn in my favor, and thankfully that's indeed what happened when about 30 minutes in, I found the ideal snow for moving fast. Another aspect to this is that while the excessive amount of snow low on the route may have cost me a few minutes, going earlier in the season than previous attempts could have helped me higher on the mountain as the route could have been more direct and the snow conditions could have been more conducive to speed. Hard to say. My biggest setback could in fact have been a huge advantage. There's no real way of knowing exactly when the conditions will be perfect for speed until you just go and find out for yourself!
On adventures such as this FKT attempt, do you find yourself “in the pain cave?” If so, how do you navigate it?
There are absolutely points where I find myself in the 'Pain Cave' so to speak. Before starting on efforts such as this, I am fully aware there will be times when it hurts, times when my legs and lungs (and whatever else decides it wants to) will be screaming at me. When I inevitably go into the pain cave, I'm ready for it. For this particular effort, I found myself in a bit of a dark place from about the top half of the Disappointment Cleaver to just below the crater rim. I was starting to feel the effects of altitude, my legs were slowing down, and all the doubts were overwhelming my mind. In moments like these I have to come back to the present, focus on the simple action of each step and each breath. I have to know that if I'm able to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how slow I have to go, the darkness will pass and the highest of highs is waiting for me on the other side (...a good bump of caffeinated Fluid doesn't hurt either).
Okay, here’s a broad, cliché question that I just need to ask… Many of us train and do our sports to compete, or to explore nature, or to find personal fulfillment. Why do you run?
Oooof, the hardest question of them all. For me, the answer to this question changes day to day, run to run, and adventure to adventure. To answer it broadly (and definitely a bit idyllically), I run to learn. Learn the limits of the human body, its insane resilience, and jaw-dropping ability to travel across unimaginable landscapes. To experience new places and gain a deep appreciation for the natural wonder this world has to offer. And maybe most importantly, to learn the power of setting small goals, of constant forward motion, of 'one foot in front of the other', of all the life lessons learned through running that also resonate throughout the rest of life.
You seem to be drawn to elevation. Do you consider yourself more of an ultrarunner or an alpinist?
I have a hard time identifying with any specific category. I run but wouldn't call myself a runner. I climb but wouldn't call myself a climber. I do many things but don't consider myself to be any one of them. I know from an outside perspective it's like, "This guy just set the speed record on Mt. Rainier, of course that guy's a runner, what the hell is he talking about?" To me though, I'm just a dude who likes to move. And when I can move in inspiring ways through inspiring landscapes, that is all the better.
Last one, I promise: if you could attempt to set the FKT for any route/peak in the world, what would it be?
There are so many 'dream efforts' for me. And so many of them I feel like an imposter even mentioning. While I'm sitting here writing this, one of the many that come to mind would be setting the speed record up Denali. The mountain itself, the history of the record and people who have come before, and the mind-numbing speed at which it has been done are all truly inspiring.
I have been dreaming about this one for years but really struggled with wrapping my head around the fact that this record was even in the realm of possibility. In the weeks leading up to this, the doubts were overwhelming. But as they say, “fake it till you make it”.
I started my day at 4:57am, coincidentally the exact same time that Uli Steidl, the previous record holder and absolute legend, started his day. I was planning on starting closer to 4:00am but having forgotten my headlamp, I had to wait until the day provided me the light I needed. (I had also forgotten my helmet.. and had to drive the hour back out to Ashford to buy a new and very expensive one...) I started from the pavement a few meters before the famous ‘John Muir Stairs’, where the typical start point is, due to the fact that they were still buried by a substantial amount of snow.
Starting up the still soft snow, my heart rate immediately redlined and I thought, “oh god… this is going to be a long day… why didn’t I have a little more patience and wait for the snow to melt? Why didn’t I wait until this slush fest turns into a fast, dry, nicely manicured trail. Why do I have to be running in slush…”. Previous records on Mt. Rainier have been done significantly later in the year, in large part due to the fact that the trail from Paradise to the Muir Snowfield is dry and fast. During my effort, the large majority of it was still under snow so I ended up getting maybe a quarter mile of dry trail tops.
About 15 minutes in I finally found a decent boot pack where the snow was a bit harder and made the going substantially easier. I had Uli’s split from where the route crosses Pebble creek, he made it there in 31:23, I got there about a minute behind in approximately 32:30. I knew it would be almost impossible for me to keep record pace on this first section given the snow factor so I tried my best not to get discouraged and keep pushing with the thought that I could make up time higher on the mountain.
Once on the Muir Snowfield I found a good rhythm, I found my flow. The snow had firmed up and I put the body in cruise control. My anxiety eased, I began to feel the joy of the moment.
In Uli’s trip report, I saw that he spent about 5 minutes at Camp Muir, I assume using this time to change into his summit gear. Given the fact that I was going unsupported and was already wearing all my ‘summit gear’, I knew that if I could make it to Muir at about the same time he did, I would be putting myself in a really good position as I would run right through camp putting me about 5 minutes ahead. I made it to Camp Muir in 1:20:24, about 30 seconds ahead of where Uli did. There were a few guys out and about, I said an out-of-breath hello and kept on moving right on through. Knowing I had just put myself 5 minutes ahead of record pace, I was feeling good. “Just keep pace Alex, nothing fancy. Just keep doing what you’re doing. On foot in front of the other. Oh, and watch out for those crevasse things.”
I had microspikes in my pack and this was about the point where I was planning on putting them on but the snow was feeling good, the boot pack was excellent, and I was feeling confident in my stride so I continued on in my just my Salomon SLab Sense 8 shoes and left the spikes in my pack figuring I’d put them on later. The moment I felt I needed them never came. I ended up summiting and descending in my Salomons.
Jogging across Cathedral Gap, I didn’t have another split of Uli’s record run until the crater rim where he made it to in 3:00:37 so at this point I quit looking at the time and just focused on me and the mountain.
I’d gotten a good preview of the route a few weeks beforehand when a few friends and I hiked a portion of the route (shoutout to Jackson, Lucas, and Robyn). Having never climbed the Disappointment Cleaver route before that, this was a huge help for the sections to come. Cruising through an empty Ingraham Flats camp, I hopped across the still snow-bridged crevasse above camp and jogged the flat section toward the start of the cleaver. The snow was still feeling sticky and I was still feeling solid in just my running shoes so in an effort to maintain the unsupported style I left the fixed lines where they lay and continued up. Partway up DC I encountered the first climbing group but was happy to have already passed the bottleneck sections before doing so. This was the first section where I started to feel the altitude and started focusing heavily on my breathing to compensate. I reached the top of the cleaver where just a few weeks earlier we had turned around due to horrendous avalanche conditions (and where I got a lovely new sister-in-law). I quickly swapped out an empty bottle for another half-liter FLUID-filled bottle I had in my pack, the last of the 1.5 liters of water I brought, and kept moving.
I had brought quite a number of Honey Stinger gels and blocks along as well but never had the desire to reach for them. The calories I'd added to my 1.5 liters of water seemed to do just fine. In fact, all the extra gear I brought including gloves, a light puffy jacket, a light windbreaker, all went unused. I was lucky enough to have idyllic conditions that allowed me to wear exactly the same equipment throughtout the entire day.
The bootpack from the top of the cleaver to the crater was in excellent condition and the snow was grippy as ever. Having never been on this section of the route before, it was impossible to judge how close I was to the top or where I was in terms of pacing. I just kept on trucking. Carefully tiptoeing by a few more climbing parties, I made it to the lower crater rim a few minutes under 3 hours and at that point I knew I had it. I was ecstatic.
I ran across the crater and up to the rim on the opposing side. Running across the rim to get to the true summit, I saw a person up there taking pictures so not quite thinking straight I just ran right to them, thinking they must be on summit. Unfortunately, in doing so I ran right by the true summit. I stopped, (3:02:13) took a quick rest, and had said person snap a few photos of me before turning around and realizing I wasn’t even on the summit… (she had actually yelled to me she wasn't on the true summit as I was moving towards her but it I guess it didn't quite register at the time). I ran over and tagged the true summit, hitting the lap button on my watch for a second time, in a time of 3:04:46.
The descent went smoothly and I got many encouraging words from the climbing parties I'd passed on the way up. Still knowing that the round-trip time wasn’t completely in the bag I couldn’t ease off. I made it back to Paradise in a total time of 4:14:13 where I was greeted by innumerous tourists giving me funny looks and wondering why the f*** is that guy breathing so hard... must be the altitude.